Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Shattered Europe: Psi Order Aesculapian & Europe Sourcebook

Shattered Europe is another Trinity sourcebook about an area that is prosperous in our (well, their) time and in serious trouble in the game's hypothetical future. The war with the early 21st century superhumans left the continent devastated, with large sections of major cities completely ruined and staggering numbers of casualties, comparable to WW2 at its worst. But in the subsequent decades, much of that had been rebuilt . . . until about 6 years before the canon start date, when the superhumans came back and dropped a huge space station on France, rendering most of northern and western Europe uninhabitable. It's the Trinity-verse's central location for post-apocalyptic style games.

On the whole, it works better for me than America Offline did. Probably because I'm less intimately familiar with the subject matter. I'm sure that there are a bunch of little details that would not ring true to the people of Europe, but I, personally, only caught a couple (referring to Ukraine as The Ukraine was merely the most obvious.)

With this added critical distance, I can see that Trinity's earth-side worldbuilding is . . . not good, exactly, but something adjacent to good. Let's call it pulp-interesting. Saying that Bohemia is a center for the arts, so much so that its Presidential nomination process skips all this business with the primaries and just automatically selects candidates from a list of the previous decade's most critically celebrated artists - that's not something I believe. In fact, it's kind of a black hole, where the more I think about it, the weirder and more untenable it becomes. However, it is something I can use.

Trinity wears its comic-book inspirations on its sleeve, and if you accept the premise that European games are supposed to draw upon post-apocalyptic tropes and themes, then artist Bohemia starts to make a certain amount of emotional sense. Europe is a place where continuity with the past was broken by disaster after disaster, but which, as a result, seeks a new connection to its past. In the Trinity era, Europe is on an opposite course from most of the rest of the world. Instead of working towards greater international cooperation and regional alliances, it is becoming fractured, with even the nation-state beginning to lose its meaning. Instead of embracing a future where humanity is without borders, it clings to a xenophobic past.

The biggest flaw in this book (from the perspective of someone who doesn't know all that much about Europe) is that its themes are a bit too far in the background. There's a lot that's implied, and it isn't presented as a coincidence that Germany is now a collection of city states, Spain is breaking up into its constituent regions, and France has no government at all. Yet it never really gets into the weeds, psychologically, and attempt to explore the realities of deprivation and continental trauma. Nor does it do a very persuasive job of tying Europe's narrative of decline to its retreat from the internationalist liberalism that is so central to the broader line's conception of "hope, sacrifice, and unity."

Ultimately, though, that's for the best. I know I keep saying this so much that it's starting to feel really backhanded, but it keeps being true. "Shattered Europe does not delve into the true horror of history's greatest atrocity" is an incredibly asinine take. It's like saying "Independence Day would have been a much better movie if, instead of going up to the alien ship, Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum stayed at the base, hugging each other and crying." The point of this game is to fight mutants in the shadow of a ruined Eiffel Tower - any potential social commentary is more of a side effect than a main goal.

Why do I keep falling into this trap? I blame White Wolf. I think there must have been something in the company culture around this period, because it keeps cropping up in game after game. As a rule, White Wolf products from this era are half dumb and half smart. Vampire: the Masquerade is a thoughtful, daring exploration of the limits of human compassion, and the day-to-day compromises that make men into monsters. It has also, with some justice, been called "superheroes with fangs."

Trinity is the same way. There are a lot of bold, unique choices that make this game a refreshing new take on the science fiction genre. But at the end of the day, they're in service to some fairly straightforward action-adventure narratives. There's a constant temptation to focus purely on the first, and just take the second for granted.

It's probably all part of old White Wolf's marketing strategy, to position its games as more sophisticated, adult alternatives to D&D. Yet as far as I know, the only people who ever bought into that were teenagers. We're probably going to see a few more cringe-inducing examples of that in books to come, but I like to think they turned a corner after The Aberrant Players' Guide and came to realize how unflattering a look it was. At the very least, they must have realized at some point that what their half-smart approach mostly accomplished was to prevent them from doing "dumb" in a smart way.

The other part of this book deals with the Aesculapian Order. The thing that most stood out to me about their presentation here was the way that a previously-released adventure path managed to advance their metaplot. The Aesculapians are now mired in controversy, thanks to the revelation of a sinister conspiracy inside the order to perform unethical medical experiments on human subjects. You can read all about those events in the Darkness Revealed trilogy!

I can't say this is a habit I love, but I made my peace with it 15 years ago. The real reason I bring it up is that this metaplot is about a powerful, respected organization that concealed abuse at the highest levels until it was dramatically revealed to the public, and then . . . nothing much of anything happened. This, I feel was well-observed sociologically.

The book tries to exonerate the lead psychic, Zweidler, by saying that he wasn't much interested in the administration of the psi order and preferred to just focus on pure research, and that's why everything was able to go on right under his nose while he was completely oblivious . . . but it kind of made him look worse to me. That sort of ignorance can only be willful, and it makes me think that maybe there's a better way to choose the leader of your international medical relief organization than just letting alien telepaths grab the most psychic guy they could find.

Overall, Trinity has yet to hit a home run with any of these setting books, but they have, nonetheless maintained a very consistent level of quality. Shattered Europe continues that pattern. It is a very useful book if you want to set Trinity games in Europe, and it's got a ton of fun, sci-fi conceits inside it. But I will admit, I'd love to see what the same writers could do with the subject matter now that they've got 20 more years of experience under their belts.

UKSS Contribution: Much of Shattered Europe featured real-world locations and peoples, and sometimes I wonder if I'm ever going to be backed into a corner where I have to pick something real. Ukss is a pulp fantasy world with magic and dragons and talking animals, and also Chicago is there. It's on the continent of Australia and its mayor is King Arthur. . . I'm kind of dreading it, but I want to reassure you all, that if the time comes, I won't back down. I'll do what needs to be done.

Luckily, this is not technically Europe, but sci-fi Europe, so I can choose something that doesn't (and probably can't) exist in the real world - The Progressive Psycho-Social Commune. It's one of those implausible speculative governments that takes its inspiration from a thought experiment that would be terribly fraught to try and implement in real life.

The idea is that everyone in the PPK undergoes periodic psychological testing, and they're placed in the job that would make them happiest. The book gets some mileage out of the impracticalities of such a system, but honestly even their most on-point jabs seem more a critique of capitalism than flaws in the system (everybody wants to work in satisfying, intellectually challenging careers - but allowing them to do so crashes the price those jobs command in the market). It's the sort of thing that could only really work if sci-fi technology smoothed out the edges, but is so appealing that it makes you wonder why we aren't currently developing the sci-fi-inspired technology to make it work in real life.


  1. Let me throw my figurative hat in the imaginary ring: When the time comes to write the Encyclopedia Ukss, I'd like to help. It's fun, it's something I'm good at, and I'd love to give a bit back to this blog that I continue to so enjoy.


    1. Thank you. I will probably take you up on your offer . . . if either of us remember it in 3-4 years.